I get it. Historians see themselves as one people who have been divided into countless tribes that can’t speak with each other. If that’s the biggest challenge facing the discipline today, I’m not worried. Especially since the existing leadership appears to be writing and assigning books like Historians in Public and History’s Babel, which not only explain the history of this issue but provide hope for the future.
Ian Tyrrell’s Historians in Public is the kind of book some older historians need to be slapped with right now, though even Tyrrell pulls a few punches. Historians in Public does a fine job in redeeming the alliance between academics and government prior to the New Left. Tyrrell is correct when he judges that post-modernism and other modern challenges are not really much different from past crises in historical academia. He is right to partially redeem the “State-based progressives” and their supposed servitude to “power” by placing them in the context of their time, and that modern historians should not fear to work with the public at both a grassroots and institutional level. This is why I am pursuing a Master’s degree. It’s why I went to work for the NPS and the public school system. Imagine what historians could accomplish with their collective intelligence if they could only (temporarily) shed their self-doubting nihilism and their hatred of their peers for their success in the public arena! If these are the kind of books being taught in Grad school right now, I think we’re well on our way.
What Tyrrell does not do is sufficiently criticize the elements of the American public that induce hesitancy and cynicism among academics. While he does admit the public itself is fragmented, perhaps more than academia itself, he does not strike hard enough at the current nature of that fragmentation. Perhaps that’s because the book itself is historiography and not a political treatise. Maybe it’s because he is an Australian and does not really care about the issue beyond proving his point. Whatever. I would like to pick up where he left off and say that not only is it ethical for historians to adapt to and engage the American public at all institutional levels, it is their moral duty to do so.
Why such an arrogant claim? It’s because too much of the American public is stupid. Specifically, I am talking about the part of the American public that listens to AM radio every time they hop in the car to inject themselves with drug-like rage and hatred for everything from minority rights to redistributive government policies. I am talking about the people who can still be riled up by the 1995 Enola Gay exhibit not because the exhibit passed any explicit moral judgment but because it tried to remind Americans that enemy casualties of war are and were human beings. Yes, I am talking about the Americans who look to the culture of “The Deep South” for self-identity.
What I mean to say is that the public desperately needs historians to involve themselves in their lives. As Robert Townsend points out in History’s Babel, the historians who hid themselves in the “ivory tower” of academic professionalism have found and continue to find a great deal of insight into history. This collective knowledge is not a simple list of facts, but a shareable wisdom cultivated by decades of critical thought, peer review, and theoretical development, all for the most part separated from the quarrelsome public sphere. In the meantime, I think, the American public has scarcely improved its capacity for rational thought in the past fifty years.
Some 77% of Americans believe in angels. A majority of Republican voters believe in demonic possession, while a minority accept global warming. Textbooks in (mostly private) schools across the country have asserted everything from the existence of the Loch Ness monster to the frightening lie that “thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks” during the American Civil War. Is it ever really surprising when historical funding is cut in a nation that elects leaders who think the earth is only 9,000 years old?
Historians, especially academic historians, need to vigorously re-engage the American public and not only teach history, but teach it in a way that promotes rational, skeptical thought. If history as a discipline ever did die without the public learning how to think like historians, then a joke once told by John Adams might become a sad prophecy:
“I’ll not be in the history books. Only Franklin. Franklin did this, and Franklin did that, and Franklin did some other damn thing. Franklin smote the ground, and out sprang General Washington, fully grown and on his horse. Then Franklin electrified him with that miraculous lightning-rod of his, and the three of them–Franklin, Washington, and the horse–conducted the entire War for Independence all by themselves.”